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January 30, 2003

WAVE Production's director saw the sign

From: The Daily Northwestern - 30 Jan 2003

'Childen of a Lesser God' brings the common struggle for human connection and rage against isolation to Shanley stage using both hearing and deaf actors

By Anna Weaver
January 30, 2003
Take seven headstrong individuals, put them together in a confined area, introduce communication obstacles between them and conflict is sure to ensue.

Sounds like the basic formula for another MTV "Real World" season, but this particular scenario is found on a stage, not your television screen, in WAVE Productions' "Children of a Lesser God."

The romantic drama, based on Mark Medoff's Tony award-winning play (which inspired the 1986 movie of the same name) takes place at a New England school for deaf children.

When young James Leeds (Communications junior Joe Petrilla) takes the new teaching position at the school, he finds himself tutoring 26-year-old Sarah Norman (Gracie Wildman), a former student and now school custodian.

Like her character, Wildman is deaf and relies heavily on signing throughout the play.

This is the first time the senior at John Hercey High School in Arlington Heights, Ill., has performed with a completely hearing cast.

"When I first got here, everyone was really good," she said. "I was worried about working with hearing individuals."

Wildman's anxieties are reflected in her character, who works as a custodian in order to avoid the hearing world outside. Sarah finds protection and continuity behind the school walls in the small deaf community she has known for most of her life.

Sarah initially repulses James' attempts to help her speak, hardened by past teachers insensitive to her world of silence. James in turn questions Sarah's reluctance and fear of the hearing world, saying "I want to know if your hatred for hearing people is as much as your hatred for yourself."

Romance develops as they spend more time together, but love has to overcome both the literal gap of silence between the hearing and deaf worlds and the miscommunication that arises in every relationship.

"To me the play is about communicating with someone on a different plane," said director Jena Oberg. "To totally make yourself one with someone else, and to take time to learn what that means, is something all humans struggle with."

Oberg had her own struggles in directing the play. "Not only did I know nothing about deaf culture," Oberg said, "but the absolute basics of theater were completely challenged with this production."

While the Communications senior had directed 15 previous shows, none of them compared to the difficulty of "Children."

"The language barrier makes you think about everything completely differently," she said. "From blocking to having the actors always face each other on stage to having everything cued for Gracie so she knows when to come in, everything was re-evaluated."

The cast took a crash course in American sign language from Wildman in the fall. Petrilla had to learn the most."He basically learned how to sign the entire show in 40 hours," Oberg said.

Another obstacle was the complication and expense involved in hiring a translator. Oberg did not find one until January.

But the challenges of the play are partly why WAVE picked "Children" as one of its productions for this school year. "We thought this would be the most challenging, heartfelt and meaningful of all the productions we were considering," she said.

But the cast's enthusiasm for learning soon made her feel comfortable. "I'm so motivated by how they all were eager and willing to learn signs," she said. "I really enjoyed working with them."

"She obviously has a natural bent towards the character,"Petrilla said of his co-star. "I think that has so much power in and of itself. It automatically gives you something to work with."

The play's message is not limited to conflict between hearing and deaf people. "It speaks to communication barriers in any relationship," Petrilla said. "To really know and be intimately joined with someone means not only being able to understand them but understand yourself and many times drop your preconceived notion." nyou

© 2003 The Daily Northwestern